All We Know: Three Lives

Overview

All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex modern women

Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure, and yet a kind of achievement.

     The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta...

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All We Know: Three Lives

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Overview

All We Know is one of Publishers Weekly's Top 10 Best Books of 2012

A revelatory biography of three glamorous, complex modern women

Esther Murphy was a brilliant New York intellectual who dazzled friends and strangers with an unstoppable flow of conversation. But she never finished the books she was contracted to write—a painful failure, and yet a kind of achievement.

     The quintessential fan, Mercedes de Acosta had intimate friendships with the legendary actresses and dancers of the twentieth century. Her ephemeral legacy is the thousands of objects she collected to preserve the memory of those performers and to document her own feelings.

     An icon of haute couture and an editor of British Vogue, Madge Garland held influential views on fashion that drew on her feminism, her ideas about modernity, and her love of women. Existing both vividly and invisibly at the center of culture, she—like Murphy and de Acosta—is now almost completely forgotten.

     In All We Know, Lisa Cohen describes these women’s glamorous choices, complicated failures, and controversial personal lives with lyricism and empathy. At once a series of intimate portraits and a startling investigation into style, celebrity, sexuality, and the genre of biography itself, All We Know explores a hidden history of modernism and pays tribute to three compelling lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Splendid . . . [A] sophisticated, droll and astute triple biography. [Cohen] had me underlining ideas and facts on the majority of its quick-moving pages . . . The photographs are strikingly integrated with the text, the times and topics are riveting, and Cohen is exceedingly well-matched to her subjects—sly, comfortable with contradiction, confident that these flawed figures were important, not mere accents to the company they kept . . . Part of the joy of All We Know is the sharpness of the subjects; they write wittily of themselves, each other and innumerable compatriots in the cultural centers of Europe and the United States, often in dazzling style.” —Karen R. Long, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

Enchanting . . . Eloquent . . . Marvelous . . . Grand and thrilling . . . [A] strikingly elegant and assured biographical study of three now almost forgotten lesbian women . . . [All We Know]’s strength lies in the extraordinary, exfoliating, anatomy-like mass of detail [Cohen] has uncovered about her subjects: her tender, erudite, weirdly jubilant, often microscopic work of historical and biographical recovery . . . You are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long. It’s a major work of scholarship and interpretation.” —Terry Castle, London Review of Books

[A] tour de force examination of the intersecting roles of gender, sexuality, class, literature, art, fashion, and modernism . . . Throughout this brilliant and gorgeously written book runs an undercurrent of deep sympathy and an acute eye for revealing details.” —Kate Tuttle, The Boston Globe

Provocative and beautifully paced . . . [A] superbly satisfying book . . . By bringing these three footnotes into the spotlight, Ms. Cohen allows us to look deeper into our definitions of failure, identity and modernity, while also reappraising the stature of artfulness as opposed to art.” —Laura Jacobs, The Wall Street Journal

“[A] magisterial book . . . All We Know is really much more about reflecting on lives (especially in the case of de Acosta) than about chronicling them. Experimental biography, if such a genre can be said to exist, is a high-wire act. Cohen never loses her balance . . . There’s no hint of mess in this almost perfect book.” —Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News

[A] seductive, brilliant new book . . . Meticulously researched and compulsively readable . . . [Cohen’s] treatment of these larger-than-life and, often, destructive figures is coolly appreciative; though unflinching in her analysis of their failings, she is never judgmental . . . Cohen’s account of the paradoxes of history and temporality is as notable for its light touch as it is for its subtlety and depth. A monument to great achievement as well as to incompleteness, All We Know does justice to both the distortions and the truths of these three lives . . . To say that All We Know is a biography does not really capture its complexity, surprise, or sheer interest . . . In her attention to the multiple connections between her major figures and to the shaping influence of informal social worlds, Cohen has written something larger and more ambitious [than a biography]: All We Know is the story of a milieu as much as it is an account of individual lives, and a remarkably subtle and thoughtful treatment of sexual desire, identity, and the cruelty of history.” —Heather Love, Los Angeles Review of Books

Fascinating . . . Vivid . . . A gossipy yet deeply intellectual account of the first generation of women who considered themselves ‘modern’ . . . All We Know is a revolutionary take on the genre of biography, aiming not so much at each of its three subjects but at their generation and how it struggled to invent female personhood for the 20th century.” —Bethany Schneider, Newsday

Fascinating . . . a boldface name—stuffed triptych of undeservedly little-known modernists: the intellectual and would-be biographer Esther Murphy, the arts enthusiast Mercedes de Acosta, and the feminist and British Vogue fashion editor Madge Garland, whose observations—‘fashion is both personal and ephemeral, it cannot be preserved’—hint at a fleeting beauty that defined all three.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue

Reading All We Know is like taking to a well-sprung dance floor in the arms of someone who can’t put a foot wrong.” —Hilary Spurling, author of Matisse the Master

All We Know is a remarkable book about three extraordinary women. These serious and eccentric women have been rescued from oblivion by Lisa Cohen’s absorbing book. She turns conventional biography upside down and inside out. This is a deeply researched, skillful, and entertaining trilogy of overlapping stories.” —Michael Holroyd, author of A Book of Secrets

[A] remarkable, sui generis study . . . [Cohen is] a brilliant biographer, one who marries scholarship to literature in a totally unprecedented way.” —Hilton Als, The New Yorker

“In her deeply researched, incisive, and scintillating first book, Cohen presents a triptych of brief lives portraying now forgotten but nonetheless singular women whose intelligence, passion, creativity, daring, and charisma were shaping forces in modern culture . . . Cohen’s astute, graceful, and far-reaching profiles not only acquaint us with three extraordinary, innovative, and influential women who rejected gender expectations but also illuminate the essential visions and voices twentieth-century lesbians and gays brought to evolving modernity.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Woven through the history of modernism are glittering strands of lives that seem certain to fade from the historical record, but without whom the fabric of that great cultural upheaval would lose color and design. In an unfathomable feat of research and storytelling, Lisa Cohen recovers three of those lives and suggests that the ephemeral nature of their legacies is central to their importance in their own time—and in ours.” —Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter

An astonishingly original, scholarly, sensitive, and above all beautifully written work.” —Selina Hastings, author of The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham

Staggering . . . Astounding . . . Lush . . . Cohen writes with an outstanding amount of research and knowledge . . . Cohen has such a masterful command of information that the story never stops fascinating the reader.” —Courtney Gillette, Lambda Literary

“Lisa Cohen has written a stunning, sophisticated account of three unconventional lives. Following in the noble tradition of Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives, David Plante’s Difficult Women, and Hilton Als’s The Women, Cohen’s triumvirate narrative illuminates mysteries of taste, innuendo, fashion, fandom, conversation, and sexuality. Heroically researched and deliciously readable, All We Know is a tender homage to archives, to ephemera, to fruitless quests, and to a spent life’s haunting nuances.” —Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Jackie Under My Skin

Ambitious . . . Erudite . . . [A] meticulously researched biography.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity . . . Cohen secures a definitive place for [Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland] in the socio-cultural history of the period.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Lisa Cohen’s All We Know is a remarkable achievement. Cohen’s sensitivity to the nuances of personality is matched by a keen analytic intelligence. She has a strong narrative gift, a superb way with words, and an appreciation for oddity that expands the horizon. All We Know is an utterly fascinating, brilliantly executed book—a splendid act of historical reclamation.” —Martin Duberman, author of Stonewall

“In All We Know, Lisa Cohen sets out to resurrect three almost-forgotten women who, especially in the 1920s and ’30s, were boldface names in the literary, art, and fashion whirl of London, Paris, and New York. And she succeeds beautifully.” —Annalyn Swan, author of de Kooning

Lisa Cohen is a biographer’s biographer. In her riveting and highly original All We Know, she tells a vivid tale of the interlocking lives of three women of the past century—a brilliant talker, an intimate of both Garbo and Dietrich, a fashion editor—and of the soigné bisexual world they inhabited.” —Brad Gooch, author of Flannery

“With an accessible prose style free of academic jargon, Cohen brings deserved attention to these women who lived often in conflict with themselves and their age. Strongly recommended.” —Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

The New York Times Book Review
"Every biography," Cohen reflects…"is a disappointment of some kind, premised on unbearable impasses and opacities, on the impossibility of bringing someone back to life, and on the paradoxes of representing, inhabiting and balancing the past and the present." But Cohen's own idiosyncratic hybrid doesn't disappoint. She builds a rich picture of a lost world—and three women who dared to inhabit it on their own terms.
—M. G. Lord
Publishers Weekly
Esther Murphy (1897–1962) was a talker, but a brilliant one; Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968), was a “seductress” who saved every scrap of memorabilia; witty aesthete, style icon, and feminist Madge Garland (1898–1990) was an editor at British Vogue. They knew each other well from social circles, and none of them had simple lives. Cohen, GQ’s fashion editor for nearly three decades, fully delineates the conventional biographical matters of ancestry, parents, schooling, marriages, affairs, friendships, breakups, work, and death. Lovers of both sexes, the three mingled at varying depths with the Bloomsbury coterie, the Paris cohort, and the Hollywood crowd, but this well-researched, gossipy, informative, and entertaining biographical triptych is also a thoughtful, three-part inquiry into the meaning of failure, style, and sexual identity. Murphy, whose major claim to our attention is ephemeral—reading voraciously and never completing her biography of Madame de Maintenon—gets nearly half of the book. De Acosta gets the brief middle, a “fantasia on a theme” that focuses on her collection of personal mementos, while Garland shapes the way British fashion lovers think about couture. All are engaged in making and remaking themselves as the “emergence of women of generation into public life one of the major shifts of the twentieth century.” Cohen secures a definitive place for them in the socio-cultural history of the period. Agency: Sterling Lord, Sterling Lord Literistic. (July)
Library Journal
Cohen (English, Wesleyan Univ.) presents three prominent yet marginalized women who were in their prime amid the flourishing social and cultural elite of America and Europe between the world wars. Esther Murphy (1898–1962), from a wealthy Irish Catholic family accepted by WASP New York, was sister to Gerald Murphy, famous expatriate who mingled with F. Scott Fitzgerald in France. Voracious reader, brilliant talker, she was long expected to produce books of towering intellect on her special subjects in French history—but she never did. As a woman, a lesbian (who married), and an unpublished intellectual, hers became a marginalized life. Madge Garland (1896–1990), Australian-born fashion editor of English Vogue in the 1930s was, like Murphy, a lesbian who married, who functioned both as insider and outsider. Mercedes de Acosta (1893–1968), largely known today for her relationships with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (and covered here in a much shorter section) garnered both attention and disdain. VERDICT Readers will not necessarily be equally intrigued by Murphy and Garland (this reviewer stands in the Murphy camp). In spite of the underlying themes, it's not entirely clear why Cohen posed these women alongside one another. They traveled in the same crowds (with Janet Flanner, Edmund Wilson, etc.), but were not close friends. Yet, with an accessible prose style free of academic jargon, Cohen brings deserved attention to these women who lived often in conflict with themselves and their age. Strongly recommended for readers in LGBT history, Lost Generation literature, women's studies, and biography.—Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Meticulously researched biography about three extraordinary but underappreciated women who, as they memorialized themselves, also "colluded in [creating their] own invisibility." The subjects of the book are the complicated, interconnected lives of New York intellectual Esther Murphy, playwright and celebrity admirer Mercedes de Acosta and fashion editor Madge Garland. Murphy was a brilliant, charismatic woman who dazzled everyone with her "extravagant verbal style." Despite the minor successes she experienced with her essays and reviews, she was unable to finish any of the books she was contracted to write. Cohen (English/Wesleyan Univ.) hypothesizes that Murphy was a performer whose "need for an audience was so great that she could not isolate herself to write" the texts that would have earned her greater recognition. By contrast, de Acosta actively attached herself emotionally, and sometimes sexually, to some of the greatest performers of her time, including Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. But in the process of obsessively collecting memorabilia related to these women, she effectively erased her own life. Like de Acosta, Garland, an editor at British Vogue, also immersed herself in the world of women. A closeted lesbian who led a double sexual life to protect her social position, Garland "played a defining role in almost every aspect of the fashion industry in England in the interwar and postwar years." Yet because she took interest in the ephemeral (fashion) and because she never trumpeted her achievements, she left no lasting memorial to her accomplishments. Murphy's life was an apparent monument to failure, de Acosta's to the irrational and Garland's to the trivial. As Cohen shows, however, each woman succeeded in problematizing the concept of modern celebrity. Ambitious, erudite and only occasionally pedantic.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374534486
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/10/2013
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 666,170
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Cohen’s writing has appeared in Fashion Theory, Bookforum, Ploughshares, The Boston Review, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Wesleyan University and lives in New York.

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Read an Excerpt

All We Know

Three Lives

For five decades, Esther Murphy built a wall of words around herself. A profusely erudite New York intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, she talked and talked, dazzling her listeners with her vast memory, her extravagant verbal style, and her inventive renderings of the past—and driving them to despair with her inability to finish the books she was contracted to write, biographies of remarkable women in history. A privileged insider and awkward outsider, she was a brilliant witness to her own time and both an analyst and an example of “failure” as an animating American conceit.

To the end of her life, Mercedes de Acosta saved a florist’s card that had come with flowers she received from Greta Garbo—a card on which Garbo had written nothing. Seductress and seduced, de Acosta was consumed by her intimacies with some of the most celebrated actresses and dancers of the twentieth century: Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, and Garbo, to name just a few. She amassed a collection—letters, playbills, clothing, photographs, clippings, more—that testifies to these intimacies, as well as to the ephemeral yet enduring relationships between fans and stars, and to the intersections of popular celebrity and high modernism. In the process, she also preserved and prolonged for herself and for us a particular set of emotions: the self-abnegation and self-aggrandizement of the devotee; the irrational, limitless passion of the collector; the socially inopportune ardor of one woman for another.

Madge Garland played a defining role in almost every aspect of the fashion industry in En gland in the interwar and postwar years and she embodied the fleeting world of haute couture with sophistication, steely fragility, and visceral pleasure. Yet she also approached her profession with a wry distance and longed to work in a more respected field of design. At once critical of and enraptured by fashion, she made sense of it by seeing it as allied with her feminism, and by living the connections among fashion, feminism, and modernist art, design, and literature. In old age, she was encouraged by friends to tell her story, but she found it almost impossible to think of her life as worth recording. Well into her eighties and almost blind, she scrawled several barely legible, emotionally veiled, but heated pages about clothing, career, and love—thick pencil on pale blue airmail paper.

Each of these women is now largely forgotten. Yet each was a dazzling figure of her time: independent, accomplished, and conflicted; scintillating and rebarbative; characteristic and exceptional. Esther Murphy played an integral part in literary New York in the 1920s and ’30s; Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, and Scott Fitzgerald were among her close friends. Mercedes de Acosta made her way in the New York theater world in the teens and twenties, worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood in the 1930s, and cherished her rare friendships. As an editor, writer, collaborator, and comrade, Madge Garland was associated with many of the writers and visual artists who have come to stand for the creative work of the interwar years in London and Paris.

All three women knew each other well and were commentators on one another’s lives. Their stories reveal vital, rarely explored networks of friends, colleagues, and lovers. All three married, but were committed primarily to other women; all participated in the close-knit, fractious lesbian networks of New York, London, and Paris. Sexual identity is an anachronistic term for that context and is in any case too static to convey how the feelings and acts it refers to changed for these women throughout their lives. But for all three, sexual freedom, difference, and censure were crucial to their experiences of modernity and to their work as thinkers about modernity. Each in her own way was also shaped by a struggle between fact and fiction, or fantasy—a potent combination for a biographer.

All of which made it logical for me to write about them collectively. But that was not what drove me. It was something more elusive, to do with the challenge each woman posed. Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta, and Madge Garland inhabited centers of cultural production in En gland, Europe, and the United States, and they worked precariously at the edges. While each one published, each also produced a body of thought that was not and could not be worked out fully on paper. As a result, each has been seen as not quite part of history, when seen at all. Juxtaposing their lives was a way to illuminate work that has not been recognized as such: in Murphy’s case, prolific conversation; in de Acosta’s, the fervent, even shameful acts and feelings associated with being a fan and collector; in Garland’s, a career in the ephemeral, often trivialized world of fashion.

Esther Murphy’s immersion in history, literature, and politics, her uncanny memory, and her obsessive talking; the flotsam and jetsam of Mercedes de Acosta’s fandom; Madge Garland’s brilliantly clothed surfaces and her apparently impersonal writings on fashion—all are forms of evidence, of production, and of autobiography. All are ways of thinking about history. All are archives, formal and intimate.

In one of her essays on biography, “Lives of the Obscure,” Virginia Woolf writes that “one likes romantically to feel oneself a deliverer advancing with lights across the waste of years to the rescue of some stranded ghost . . . waiting, appealing, forgotten, in the growing gloom.” This romance has its appeal. I have wanted to make these three women visible again, albeit in new ways, and I have spent years tracking them. But none of them thought herself in need of rescue. Each memorialized herself and colluded in her own invisibility; each lived imagining what should, or might, or could never be, saved or jettisoned. Their lives also continually raised such questions about value for their friends and other observers. And so documenting Murphy, de Acosta, and Garland’s lives has meant paying attention to the ways that each was, for the people around her, a storehouse of modern anxieties about what we call failure, irrationality, and triviality.

These are three stories, then, about how history is lived, written, and imagined—three lives in which what it meant to be modern was an urgent question. They are also stories about the meaning and uses of style: rhetorical, sexual, sartorial. “What is style?” the American modernist Marguerite Young has asked. Her own reply: “Style is thinking.” A riddle of unconscious excitements and conscious choices, style is a way to fascinate oneself and others—and to transform oneself and the world. It is an attempt to make the ordinary and the tragic more bearable. Style is a didactic impulse that aspires to banish doubt, a form of certainty about everything elusive and uncertain. Style is at once fleeting and lasting, and it has everything to do with excess—even when its excesses are those of austerity or self-denial. It is too much and it is nothing at all, and it tells all kinds of stories about the seams between public and private life. As a form of pleasure, for oneself and for an audience, and as an expression of the wish to exceed and confound expectations, to be exceptional, style is a response to the terror of invisibility and isolation—a wish for inclusion. Above all, it is a productive act that, although it concerns itself with the creation and experience of brilliant surfaces, is powerful because it unsettles what we think we know about the superficial and the profound.


A Perfect Failure

When you met Esther Murphy she told you about the history of people and things you knew and the history of things you had never considered. Six feet tall, regal in bearing, yet irremediably awkward, she was all energy, compulsion, and excitement about ideas, and she was excited above all about the past. She would command the floor with long monologues about the intricacies of the American presidency and of the Hanseatic League, the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV, the building you were living in, the ancestors you thought you had forgotten. She would quote François Fénelon, Saint-Simon, Jane Austen, and Henry Adams while smoking two cigarettes at once, drinking nonstop, letting food congeal on her plate, gesticulating grandly, then stubbing her cigarettes out on her lapels. She would pull great swathes of human history out of her memory, exhilarated by its ironies, its neglected crevices, and its meaning in the present, stopping time and prolonging it while she explored its recesses, fascinating her listeners and overwhelming them, drawing them in and keeping them at bay, unaware of what she was doing, aware only of what she was thinking.

At age nine she was already “a nonstop conversationalist.” When she was eleven years old, her father pronounced her “a wonder.” Patrick Murphy, a famous public speaker in the first decades of the twentieth century and the owner of the luxury leather goods company Mark Cross, thought so highly of Esther that he would seat her at his dinner table so she could listen to the conversation of New York politicians, judges, writers, and businessmen. “Never have I seen such a mind,” he crowed to his son Gerald, her elder brother; “everybody who meets her stamps her as a ‘genius.’ ” Preternaturally well-read, Esther seemed able to glance at a book and absorb it all, verbatim. By her teens, her conversation and correspondence were crammed with references to the history, literature, and philosophy she incorporated with such ease. She “utterly demolished” the actor Monty Woolley, a friend of Gerald’s, when she turned to him “with a dissertation on the difference between Dostoevski and Turgenev.” When Gerald submitted a poem of hers “to several magazines (for criticism only),” the editors “pronounced it ‘mature genius’, etc.” As Gerald boasted, “Moreover, she wants to write!”

In her twenties, which spanned the 1920s, she found her place and contemporary affinities in hard-drinking, haute bohemian New York and Paris, where her excesses, social and intellectual, were noteworthy even during that period of furious excess. Arriving at a party thrown in her honor in May 1928, Carl Van Vechten “ask[ed] why in heaven’s name a party should be given for Miss Esther Murphy, who attended more parties than any living woman, never going to less than three a night.” In Djuna Barnes’s 1928 Ladies Almanack, a satire of the Paris salonnière and Sapphist Natalie Barney and her circle, Esther appears as “Bounding Bess, noted for her Enthusiasm in things forgotten,” absorbed by “great Women in History,” and “last seen in a Cloud of Dust, hot foot after an historic Fact.” When Scott Fitzgerald published Tender Is the Night, for which he initially used Gerald Murphy and his wife, Sara, as models for the protagonists, a mutual friend wrote to Fitzgerald, “I don’t remember talking to anyone in New York about the novel except Esther and she did all the talking.” She talked all through lunch one day with the novelist Dawn Powell, then finally paused and said to Powell, “But you were going to say something.” Powell replied: “I was going to say, ‘Hello, Esther.’ ” Even when Esther Murphy couldn’t speak, she was compelled to perform—and others were equally compelled to assist at the performance. Guests arriving late to a party one evening found everyone else sitting in silence with Esther standing before them “going through all the motions of holding forth, but with no audible sound. She had completely lost her voice, yet commanded the attention of her audience.”

The charisma was real, and it was allied to a gentleness and generosity that often survived even when she was at her most dissipated. It was also allied to a profound insecurity. Dawn Powell described Esther as “personally and professionally frightened, shy, and arrogant without confidence, which is no way to profit by arrogance.” Still, it seemed obvious to everyone around her that she would turn her perorations into important books. Attracted to and confounded by women of previous centuries who had been socially mobile and had played contested roles in political history, Esther planned to write several biographies and had contracts from publishers to do so. Instead, she kept talking. If she is remembered at all today it is as Gerald Murphy’s eccentric, pathetic sister, a marvel who became a spectacular disappointment.

She could not live without books, but it seemed that she also needed a live audience. If you asked her a question—“it could be a question about a seventeenth-century Florentine economist, a question about almost anything”—she would lean back, take several staccato puffs on her cigarette, say: “All we know is”—and then launch into a long disquisition on the subject.

All we know. The phrase announces the partial, human quality of that knowledge—collective and individual—and the encyclopedic discourse that would follow. It is at once “everything we know” and “the very little we know,” a declaration of comprehensiveness and incompletion.

Esther Murphy’s history is itself a portrait of comprehensiveness and incompletion: stunning accomplishment and prodigious limitation, promise and defeat, writing and not writing, originality and obsessive citation, fact and fantasy, performance and painful reticence, uncanny memory and oblivion. She talked more than anyone, drank more than anyone, was bigger, more brilliant, kinder—and yet her life seemed to her friends to hang in midair, unfulfilled. She became a figure whose inability to complete her planned long works both pained her writer friends and reassured them about their own productivity and success.

“There has never been an American tragedy,” said Scott Fitzgerald in 1927. “There have only been great failures.” “I am certain that what makes American success is American failure,” wrote Gertrude Stein, who also described herself as “fond of saying that America, which was supposed to be a land of success, was a land of failure.” To be seen as a failure in America and in American letters, as Stein and Fitzgerald knew, is to occupy a special place in the imagination of a culture that celebrates success and abhors its opposite to an uncommon degree. “I am an American,” Esther would declare, drawing herself up to her full, considerable height. She said it in En gland, in Mexico, in Italy, and in France. It was not a declaration of patriotism, she averred, but “something much deeper.” The America with which she identified consisted of an idea, an ideal, about the fruitful conjunction of democracy and intellect, a story—her father’s and the nation’s—of meritocratic rise. This America was a place where her experience of financial privilege and cynicism about the power of capital could coexist. It was a place of limitless violence and mendacity that produced and accommodated her pride, her agnosticism, her oddness, her pragmatism, and her belief in rational debate. It was a place where she could see Scott Fitzgerald demonstrate spectacularly the costs of literary success and defeat, acclaim and “crack-up,” and where her acute sense of difference, her feeling of being at once exceptional and aberrant, was peculiarly at home. It was a place asking its own questions about the correct use of extra ordinary talent—and telling, with every move, a story about the squandering of great resources. And it was a place whose historical amnesia Esther fought with her capacious memory, her profound engagement with the past, and her sense of obligation to politics in the present.

The issue of how the United States should come to maturity was a live issue as Esther came of age. The ruptures of the Civil War were a living memory; identity was often conceived in more local than national terms, yet still shaped in reaction to Europe; new waves of immigration were changing the country in profound ways; and “the speeded-up pace of American life, the constant changing-hands of money,” in Edmund Wilson’s words, and the resulting pressure to produce—which is to say, to succeed—was overwhelming some middle-class, white, Protestant men and sending them into retreat from work and the work ethic. It was at this fraught moment that an American woman could first be said to have failed at something other than femininity and motherhood.

In fact, failure was part of Esther Murphy’s intellectual purview: She loved to think about wasted effort and lost causes, on the American scene and in Europe. She called Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government of 1929– 31, with which she was briefly associated as the wife of the English politician John Strachey, “the most important failure since the Wall Street crash.” She renounced Catholic doctrine at a young age, but was forever rehearsing the machinations of the Church, including the French suppression of Protestantism and the struggles between Jesuits and Jansenists there. She delighted in the fact that Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve had “rescued the forgotten tragedy of the Jansenists” in his six-volume history of seventeenth-century France, Port-Royal. And then there was her long obsession with Madame de Maintenon, the biographical subject who was most important to her and about whom she left an unfinished manuscript. All of these interests had to do with her fascination with the ruins that are always part of the workings of power—with the ways that one strain of thought, faith, or behavior becomes dominant and another subsidiary. Madame de Maintenon was born in poverty, the granddaughter of a famous Huguenot writer and soldier, but became the second, secret wife of Louis XIV. Writing about Maintenon’s dramatic renunciation of her Protestant faith and acceptance of Catholicism, Esther speculated, “Did she realize that the French reformation was one of the greatest failures in history and did she dislike failure?”

But while Esther believed that wasted effort was not a waste, or that such waste forever had meaning, she was not interested in simple acts of reclamation. Seeing her again after a long absence, Edmund Wilson relished her talking “with her usual historical gusto.” History for her was what could not be contained: herself, her volubility, her pleasure in thinking about those who had preceded her, her desire to make herself the vehicle for the chasms and correspondences between now and then, the way the achievements and disasters of the past continually made themselves felt in the present—all of the sparkling facts. History was a dead woman—and a living one to whom she wanted to say something. She “was all about ideas and marvelous sentences, not about research,” said the writer Sybille Bedford, one of those living women.

“Statistics,” wrote Dawn Powell, after an evening with Esther, “occupy her as if they were rare jewels.” But if the facts were radiant, glamorous, and meaningful to her, so was their absence and fabrication—the missing, forgotten, and invented. And it was equally her habit to see the world in literary terms. Some of her most elaborate discourses on the past turned out to be carefully wrought fictions masquerading as fact. Analyzing public figures and friends, she thought of them as characters from novels and plays as well as actors in history. She loved odd juxtapositions of the actual and invented. “I will now proceed to deliver a few comments on the general world situation,” she wrote to a friend in 1933, then went on to consider the French reaction to FDR’s economic policies by quoting Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. “‘Fits upon fits upon fits, and the loss of her intellects for days at a time,’ is the only adequate description of what the French press and official classes have been going through,” she wrote, citing the histrionics of Richardson’s heroine. Projecting herself and others back in time, compounding the gesture with reference to literature: This was Esther Murphy’s constant practice.

The genre of biography has itself, for approximately the past eighty years, been said to lie at the intersection of history and literature, of fact and imagination. Esther Murphy did not write a biography. She did leave a record of her attempts to do so: of the archival lacunae that hampered her writing; of the psychological inscrutability of her subjects; of the ebb and flow of her own admiration for, identification with, and disgust at these figures—a pattern that often characterizes biographers’ work. Her brother Gerald has become known for his devotion to “living well,” for the way he harnessed his aesthetics as a painter, as a businessman, and as a creator of perfect moments in the present for his family and friends, for many of whom his taste represented the spirit of the 1920s. Esther responded to and shaped the first part of the twentieth century with ideas rather than objects. She moved through her time fueled by insecurity, alcohol, and relentless intellectual energy, promulgating a vision that made that era new and old at once. Her expert, idiosyncratic engagement with history was as informed by her sense of not quite belonging to her own time as it was by her perceptive understanding of the contemporary scene. She held that anachronism was at least as important as novelty in thinking about modernity, and that modernity was something far more complex than either rupture with the past or reversion to a remote past (the latter being the gestures that Ezra Pound and H.D. made, for example, in their turns to antiquity).

It is a cliché of American life that we like our brilliance to flare up and die young, we like it to crash and burn. This is not that tale—nor is it the nineteenth-century counternarrative of abdicating ambition: preferring “not to.” This is a story about a life in which past and present, fact and fiction, history and failure, collide. It is a story about someone who made history and politics a literary occasion, whose sense of the politics of literature was acute, and who understood and embodied American success and American failure.

ALL WE KNOW Copyright 2012 by Lisa Cohen

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